The Perfect Story: Personal Taste

What do you think is perfect?

For the last while I’ve been talking about some of the virtues that I personally think need to appear in a story in order for it to feel “perfect” to me.  I’m using the word “perfect” in one of its minor contexts, to mean “whole” or “complete.”

Yet I’ve come to a part of the discussion where you and I might part ways.  You see, my definition of perfect might not be quite the same as yours.  Just as I might think that a vanilla milkshake is “perfect” while you disagree—after all, how can a shake be perfect without chocolate?—there are some things that a story may or may not need.

For example, what about the characters in your story?  Do they have to be unique?  I wouldn’t think so.  After all, how many unique people do you really know?  Perhaps you don’t want your characters to feel highly individualized.  Maybe your story isn’t about a unique character so much as it is about an “everyman,” a commoner that billions of readers will instantly identify with.   Well, in that case, a well-defined character might not be suitable for your story.

Yet I know of some critics who think that a story couldn’t be perfect without the author developing an exquisite and fascinating character who nearly pops right off the page.

As Orson Scott Card has pointed out, not all stories are “about” characters.  He argues that some stories are about great ideas or events, others are centered on milieu.  I’ll add that most stories really are devised to arouse powerful emotions that the audience desires.  So is a fully developed character desirable for a milieu story?  Possibly not.  In fact, I’ve seen characters that are so well developed that they vie for the reader’s attention with the real center of the story—the milieu, or the controlling emotion.  Not only don’t such characters enhance the tale, they can mar it.

The same is true with some other elements of your tale.  Some critics will argue that a perfect story would need to have an engrossing setting, but for many a tale, a setting that is too exotic, too attentive to detail, would simply outweigh more important elements.

It’s like a painting.  Imagine that you are looking for a painting to fit in a room in your home.  You want something with warm tones—ruddy gold and burnt orange—to fit with the oak flooring, brass fixtures, and ivory paint in the room.  Now, you find an almost perfect picture, an autumnal landscape, but the artist, feeling that he or she “must” include all of the colors of the palate in order to create a “complete” landscape, has decided to paint large swaths of purple and violet into the sky.  Can you see how by trying to do too much, the artist might actually destroy his or her own work, making it unsuitable to his customer’s needs?

So when you’re considering what makes a “perfect” tale, to some degree you must make your own judgments, and those judgments might be relative depending upon the type of tale that you’re trying to tell.

In short, the amount of energy and space that you devote to your characters, milieu, ideas, themes, events, and the emotional objective correlatives that you include in your tale must all be proportionally balanced not just for the “kind” of story that you’re telling, but for the exact story that you’re creating.

To some degree, that becomes a matter of taste.

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